I anticipated the question, but I wasn’t sure in what form it would come. Turns out it was about the extent to which high school and postsecondary curriculum should be aligned with what employers say they need, assuming they (1) know what they need; and (2) can communicate needs in terms educators can translate into curriculum design and operationalize. My response struck a somewhat philosophical tone:
“The goal of education is not to get a good job. It’s one of the goals. It’s not the goal.”
Such started a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking stay in Coeur d’Alene last week for EMSI’s 2015 National Conference, where I served as the keynote presenter. EMSI posted a rundown of the conference and a selection of memorable quotes from participants. You can find my keynote slides posted on the CA website. Presentations were not recorded, but the slides should give you an idea of the key points – all things covered during the semester in my class at UT-Austin, but never assembled as a single talk in a partially autobiographical format. Thanks again to EMSI for giving me an opportunity to try that out.
So, have we become too data-driven? Given the nature of most of our projects at Civic Analytics, it’s something that is always on my mind when working with clients, as well as with students in my class. Examples include:
What is the appropriate role of data in planning, and how best should it be incorporated into a planning process?
How much insight can we really glean from imperfect data, such as job postings, about supply and demand conditions in the labor market?
Further, to what extent should we rely on labor market information at all to drive curriculum choices in K-12 and postsecondary education? We insist on “aligning” education and workforce development to employer needs in an employer-driven system based on labor market insight, but what good does alignment do if newly minted graduates don’t have the three to five years of work experience required to get a foot in the door for an “entry-level” job interview?
Do we have too much faith in data?
Answering that question depends on how you view data. For me, this is where the line is drawn that separates academic research from applied research. Most academic researchers would, I think, say that the goal of research is knowledge creation. That knowledge may be applied to improve the world in some way, but creation is the primary goal, and, hopefully, we are all smarter as a result.
Most applied researchers, at least in the economic and workforce development context, view data as a means of communication. Applied researchers are responsible for using data to tell compelling stories, create a sense of urgency about needed improvements, and inspire people to act. We are judged not so much on our ability to make sense of the world, but on our track record of inspiring public and private sector leaders to make tough and often unpopular decisions to act to improve it. That requires quite a bit of faith in data, but even more confidence in the ability of practitioner storytellers.
Teaching applied data analysis for planning in an environment dominated by infographics, lofty claims about the power of “big data,” and a growing spotlight on open data in the public sector is increasingly difficult. The gains we’ve made in data accessibility are unbelievable, and planning is better off because of them. Yet, when confronted with such a vast amount of data, it’s easy for early-career planners and students to focus only on the mechanics of dealing with data–methods, statistics, dashboards–and less on the power of good storytelling. Knowing your audience. Avoiding jargon. Creating data-driven calls to action and goals that connect with community priorities. Inspiring people to want to act, and then empowering them with the insight and tools to do so.
Teaching methods is relatively easy. Helping people learn how to use data to ask good questions and inspire action is much more difficult.
But based on the expertise in the room and quality of discussion at the EMSI conference, I think our profession has a bright future.
Photo: Peter Røise Photography